Red-bellied woodpeckers push north

Northwoods Notebook

THE UPPER PENINSULA has its fair share of native woodpeckers, three of which are shown here. Above, left, a red-bellied woodpecker enjoys some suet and grain balls while a female hairy woodpecker feeds off suet. (Betsy Bloom/Daily News photos)

A reader recently called to ask if I’d heard of any red-bellied woodpeckers this far north.

I told him I have one daily in the backyard.

Over the past century, the red-bellied woodpecker has taken advantage of environmental changes and likely the growing popularity of bird feeders to advance its range north, according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Even though it started as a strictly southern species, it seems to have no trouble coping with a northern winter as long as it has a ready food supply.

While this particular bird is not yet as common as our downy and hairy woodpeckers, it might come to rival those two species, given its fondness for visiting feeders.

It raises the number of native woodpecker species in the U.P. to at least seven, ranging from the diminutive downy to the crow-sized pileated. A couple of them are scarce and almost unknown south of northern Wisconsin.

A male downy woodpecker forages on a small tree trunk.

They include:

— Hairy and downy — similar in black and white pattern, white spotting on wings and white head stripes, with males also sporting a touch of red on the back of the head. Size is the main way to distinguish between the two, as the downy is a Mini-Me version of the robin-sized hairy, with a smaller bill. These are the most numerous of the woodpeckers and stay north year-round, readily coming to feeders that offer suet and sunflower seeds.

— Northern flickers, the large, paper-bag-brown woodpecker with speckled belly that behaves more like a robin, in that it forages on the ground for insects rather than in the trees. It also migrates, rare behavior among woodpeckers, according to Cornell.

— The pileated, unmistakable given its size — at least twice as big as any of our other native woodpeckers — and crest. Unlike many of their kin, pileateds strongly increased in number from 1966 to 2014, according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

— Yellow-bellied sapsuckers. The males have more red on the head than the hairy, with a red throat along with cap. And both male and female have the wash of chalk yellow that, again, accounts for the name. They also have the habit of drilling a series of shallow holes in trees like maple and birch, to dine on sweet, oozing sap. They are less likely to come to feeders but may show up in fruit trees — where they will punch holes in fruit, which once made them orchard pests, Cornell says.

— Black-backed and three-toed woodpeckers, which as the first name implies tend to be darker than the others, as well as more northernly. These are boreal forest birds, not unlike the gray jay and spruce grouse. The males have a yellow forehead, while the females can be a little more confusing, in that they have black and white coloration similar to the hairy. But the white is not as pronounced and it has barring along the breast and belly that the hairy lacks. This winter has seen a strong influx of the black-backed in northern Wisconsin, but I have not heard of many extra sightings in the U.P. Then again, neither species tends to visit feeders, so seeing them is not easy.

Wisconsin also can have red-headed woodpeckers, perhaps the most boldly marked of its kind, with all-crimson head, white belly and black wings with broad white band. They’re rare this far north, preferring oak savannah areas, and have seen a 70 percent population drop from 1966 to 2014, according to Cornell.

The decline of the red-headed shows some of the dangers of being more specialized, in that if that particular habitat shrinks, the bird has less ability to adapt. In the southern U.S., the red-cockaded woodpecker and, more famously, the huge ivory-billed woodpecker both ended up on the federal Endangered Species list because they favored a specific type of habitat that, when cleared or logged, left them displaced and without nesting sites.


Speaking of Cornell, this weekend is the Great Backyard Bird Count, in which people globally are asked to do a tally of what they see outside their home or at the feeder for at least 15 minutes, both in terms of numbers and species, then log in their results online. The count first was done in 1998 by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society, and is used to “created an annual snapshot of the distribution and abundance of birds,” according to Cornell. It since has joined with eBirds for the effort.

The count period began Friday and extends through Monday. For more information and to sign up to participate, go online to

Betsy Bloom can be reached at 906-774-2772, ext. 40, or